Skip to main content

1st February 2013

Postgraduate funding needs reform

Becky Montacute argues for a change in postgraduate funding as a prospective postgraduate sues an Oxford college

At undergraduate degree level, everyone seems to care about widening access. The numbers of students on free schools meals are scrutinised. Stats are collected on state school attendance and forms are given out to find the financial backgrounds of a new undergraduates’ parents. An awful lot has been done to help to widen access at undergraduate level,  with loans, scholarships and grants now available. Things aren’t perfect, for example loans often don’t cover  first year hall costs. Fine for the worst well off as they receive grants, less okay for the lower middle classes whose parents then have to struggle to make up the gap. But things have improved, and for the most part for undergraduates the cost of University is not a barrier.

Recent controversy from the University of Oxford has shown that this is not the case for postgraduates. 15% of prospective postgrads offered a place at Oxford have to turn it down because they do not meet the University’s financial requirements. Not only do they need to prove they have the money for course fees, but also £12,900 a year in living costs. Now one potential postgraduate student, Damien Shannon, is suing an Oxford college after they barred him from taking up his postgrad place. Damien secured a place at Oxford to read an MSc in economic and social history. but because he could not guarantee this level of funding, he was not able to take up his place.

Scholarships for these postgrad courses are thin on the ground. This is not just a problem at Oxford. Often the only option for postgrads to get funding is to take out a Professional and Career Development Loan, letting them borrow a maximum of £10,000. These loans are provided through banks, and charge commercial rates of interest. Whilst the government does pay the interest for you whilst you are studying, a month after your studies have finished you have to start paying that loan and interest back. If your fees are several thousand pounds already, plus living costs on top, this loan won’t even cover it. For most, this will not be enough to pay for a yearlong masters.

What you are left with is a situation in which those with the money are those with postgraduate qualifications. If mummy and daddy can foot the bill for your masters or PhD, you can have that extra qualification, and along with it that extra advantage over your peers. This gives the financially better off an unfair advantage in the job market. But perhaps even more importantly, postgraduate qualifications are done by those who really love their subject. Thousands of students are being priced out of pursuing their passion in academia, despite being good enough to secure a place to do so.

A better system for postgraduate funding is a necessity, as the current system unfairly favours the wealthy in a way we would never accept it doing for undergraduates. Why is postgrad so different? Now that so many people are getting postgrads, someone without one has an unfair disadvantage, just as it used to be for an undergraduate degree. Some may see a masters as pointless, but if you want a career in academia they are a necessity. Many people use a masters to change career paths, perhaps wanting to move into Journalism or Law. They facilitate in just the same way undergraduate degrees do, in that they allow you to get a better job than you would have otherwise, and hopefully a job you enjoy. This shouldn’t be a choice only for the wealthy, so reforming postgrad funding should be a priority for the government. A system needs to be put in place whereby the amount that can be borrowed can cover both fees and living expenses. Even if this is still done by banks, and commercial rates of interest are charged, it would help open the door for thousands of prospective postgrads. Postgrads know their qualification is a good investment, and they should pay it back when they can do so, but at the moment they don’t even have the option to have the money at all. It needn’t be a massive expense for the government, but some money and will are needed to change the system and ensure opportunity is open for all.

But with Oxford University having to operate under the current system, are they at least being as fair to postgrads as they can be? It would help no one if several postgrads each year were starting at Oxford, didn’t have enough to live on, and dropped out within a few months. Their space would be wasted, a space that someone else could have taken. But Oxford’s projected living expenses are set much too high. They include an estimate of £56 a week for food – are they really too detached to envisage a student having baked beans on toast for dinner? Oxford are needlessly pricing students out of attending. By lowering their bar to a more reasonable level (Damien Shannon had £9,000 available for living expenses a year) they would considerably widen access, something that is as important at postgraduate as undergraduate level.

More Coverage

The post-diss bliss…or is it?

The promise of post-dissertation freedom was quickly squashed by essay deadline demands, and the desire to do anything but re-open my laptop is taking over

200 years of the University of Manchester… celebrating white male alumni

As the University of Manchester prepares its bicentenary celebrations, it’s time to address the less-celebrated alumni, and question why these individuals have received less attention

Why are we still talking about ‘women who have it all’?

The ‘women who have it all’ narrative is alive and kicking in 2024, but instead of being empowering, it’s a patriarchal trope designed to pit one against another

Stick or twist: Why do students choose to stay in the south of Greater Manchester?

The universities along Oxford Road churn their students into Manchester city centre, and south of the city. As students turn into graduates, why do we disregard North Manchester and stay in the same southern areas?